Photographer Bo Bridges Launches Headfirst Into the Grueling Taplin Lifeguard Relay

Clear as a bell.

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  • Photographed by
    Bo Bridges

In 1936 Bud Stevenson, former chief lifeguard and the first assistant director of the Los Angeles County Department of Beach, approved the first ever Judge Irvin Taplin Lifeguard Medley Relay. The event’s namesake was a Los Angeles County Municipal Court judge and a former Los Angeles lifeguard.

A way to showcase lifeguarding skills in Southern California, the relay originally consisted of four swimmers, four paddlers and four two-man dory teams. The race is held at night to accommodate the lifeguards’ work commitments during the day.

During World War II, the competition was discontinued for four years and restored in 1947. A couple years later, the Taplin bell was first introduced. This coveted trophy features all the winning teams and their members from 1949 to the present.

It’s said that Bud stumbled upon the bell while on Terminal Island and discovered that it was from the tanker he served on during the war: the F.H. Hillman. When Bud presented the yard superintendent a photo of himself posed next to the bell, he sold Bud the bell for $25. After the Taplin Relay, each member of the winning team is called to the stage to ring the bell. The lifeguard is allowed one ring for each year he has won.

“People who attend the races see the same lifeguards—who keep them and their loved ones safe each day at the beach—demonstrate their ocean skills. On Intracrew Night, you are racing with the same lifeguards you have worked side by side with all summer as a cohesive unit. We develop a strong sense of camaraderie working as a team on the beach every day, and I believe this is evident to the spectating public. The team is made up of every rank.”

— Captain Tom Seth, Lifeguard Services at Los Angeles County Fire Department, tied with Mel Solberg for the most Taplin wins at 20 each

In 1963 the cities of Redondo Beach, Hermosa Beach and Manhattan Beach joined forces with the three chambers of commerce and Los Angeles County to present a combined beach festival known as the International Surf Festival. A few years later the city of Torrance and the Torrance Chamber of Commerce joined the others to be co-sponsors of the festival. The International Surf Festival has been held every year for 57 years. For the last five years, the relay has taken place in Hermosa Beach.

“The more time lifeguards spend in the water in a recreational setting, the better they become in the water when the setting is not recreational. Nothing we do is all that important if it does not outlive us, and Taplin is no different. I hope future generations of lifeguards are far better in the water than my peers and I, and Taplin is special way to foster that.”

— Michael Murphy, Ocean Lifeguard Specialist at Los Angeles County Fire Department




Throughout the years the trophy has bounced between lifeguard teams from Los Angeles County, Orange County and Ventura County. In 1977 the Los Angeles team split into three separate teams: L.A. County Southern Section, L.A. County Central Section and L.A. County Northern Section. The event has become so prolific, teams from Australia have participated in the relay; they even established their own version of the competition in their home country.

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